By MARSHA MERCER
While Washington obsessed about the political drama unfolding over taxes, President Barack Obama flew to North Carolina to talk about something even more important than his future: ours.
“I came to Winston-Salem because I believe that right now there are bigger issues at stake for our country than politics,” the president said at a technical college. “At this moment, the most important contest we face is not between Democrats and Republicans. It’s between America and our economic competitors all around the world.”
Let’s see. Unemployment is nudging 10 percent, the economy is stalled -- and the president has to leave Washington to say that educating the young for a global economy is more important than partisan bickering. We do live in interesting times.
Obama’s tax cut compromise with Republicans and the resulting Democrats’ rebellion dominated the nation’s capital. Business leaders praised the president, and liberals likened him to George H.W. Bush, whose reversal on his “no new taxes” pledge cost him a second term.
No wonder Obama wanted to change the subject by talking about education and the world economy.
“In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind. That’s just the truth,” he said. “If you hear a politician say it’s not, they’re not paying attention.”
This president hasn’t used the bully pulpit much to galvanize support around national priorities. Republicans defined the tax cut debate, but an across-the-board cut, while popular, won’t make our students smarter or more competitive against those in Asia. Despite all the talk over the last few years about leaving no child behind, this country continues to lag much of the world in math and science.
More bad news about the global education race dropped this week. An international survey reported that teenagers in Shanghai have the world’s top scores in reading, math and science. The United States ranked only 14th in reading, 25th in math and 17th in science literacy, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which oversees the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA.
The PISA 2009 survey of how well students in dozens of countries are prepared for the future found that American 15-year-olds are just average. Students in South Korea, Finland and Canada, among others, scored higher than those in America.
Arne Duncan, the education secretary, said the report should be “a wake-up call” that many nations are out-educating us.
“The mediocre performance of America’s students is a problem we cannot afford to accept and yet cannot afford to ignore,” he said.
It’s not for lack of money. We’re falling behind even though we spend more per student than any other country on Earth – except Luxembourg, Duncan said.
Here’s another facet: American 15-year-olds may be only average in reading, math and science, but they are more confident of their academic skills than students in virtually any other country. Duncan called the finding stunning.
“Students here are being commended for work that would not be acceptable in high-performing education systems,” he said.
To be sure, dire reports about American education are nothing new. Politicians have been vowing to reform or transform the system at least since the elder George Bush campaigned for president in 1988, saying he wanted to be the “education president.”
Everyone pays lip service to the notion that the United States needs highly trained scientists and engineers, but our goals shift with the political winds. Recent policy has focused on raising the performance of low-achieving students, a laudable goal, but the brightest achievers deserve attention too. Can’t we help both?
Duncan suggests we can learn from countries that are doing education right. Education ministers from around the world will gather in New York in March for a summit. Some states are already forging ahead in pursuit of higher educational standards and improved teaching, he said.
Obama mentioned the PISA report at a news conference the day after he was in North Carolina.
“So what are we doing to revamp our schools to make sure our kids can compete? What are we doing in terms of research and development to make sure that innovation is still taking place here in the United States?” he asked.
The questions were rhetorical. Instead of talking policy, he segued into a discussion of his coming debate with Republicans over the fairness of the tax code. It was time again for party politics.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.